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Pentagon energy strategy: 'Reduce, diversify, plan for the future'

Pentagon leaders today rolled out a long-anticipated energy strategy for military operations in the field. It's meant "to transform the way the Department consumes energy."

Why now? Inside and outside the Pentagon, the top reason given is fuel convoy vulnerability in Iraq and Afghanistan. A few stats:

  • 1 casualty every 24 supply convoys. That's the ratio in Afghanistan, according to this Army study. It found Iraq casualties were less frequent.
  • 22 gallons of fuel, per soldier, per day. That's Deloitte's tally of the military energy demand. 
  • $45 dollars/gallon. Getting petroleum to the battlefield costs that much, figures this estimate, factoring in fuel transportation and more importantly, fuel protection.   

The Pentagon's public message is it's fully committed to shrinking its energy footprint. As one leader put it at today's press conference: "Reduce, diversity, plan for the future."

I asked Assistant Defense Secretary Sharon Burke when the military woke up to the energy problem (listen here):

"The a-ha moment that really got our attention was Gen. James Mattis, back in the 2004 time frame, coming back from both Afghanistan and Iraq, and saying 'unleash us from the tether of fuel.' He was seeing our fuel demand as a limitation on what we could do militarily."

Several departments have set aggressive goals for alternative, non-petroleum fuels. The Navy pledges to run on 50% alternative energy by 2016. It plans to sail a fossil fuel-free "Great Green Fleet" the same year. The Air Force plan commits to acquiring 50 percent of its domestic aviation fuel from alternative sources that emit less carbon.

Entrepreneurs are watching closely.

If the Pentagon buys large quantities of new battery-storage gizmos, renewable fuels or solar generators, it could accelerate the evolution from garage to prototype to market. One inventor told me his contract with the Marine Corps is like a Good Housekeeping seal when he goes to other customers and lenders. 

Optimists note the Pentagon's long been at the tip of the innovation spear, incubating technologies like GPS, radar and the Internet. And, yes, the military was among the first American institutions to integrate. Could it lead a clean-tech revolution, too?

There are question marks.

Several retired officers have told me top commanders may ignore the topic on grounds of "I'm too busy fighting 2.5 wars." 

Military cultural inertia's another barrier. 

One veteran thinks this whole energy program could prove to be one more war-fighting fad that falls out of fashion when the next generation of uniformed and civilian leaders steps in.

And several wonder about the state of technology the services are banking on. One think tank study raises serious questions about alternative biofuels: will they be ready to commercialize in the next decade? Will they compete cost-wise with petroleum? Does the military gain any advantages using biofuels?

I'll be on the road reporting on this topic the next month or two.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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